“The Republic Book I” by Plato (380 BC)

“The Republic Book I” by Plato


Socrates teaches the basis of good government: "Get off my lawn!"
Socrates teaches the basis of good government: “Get off my lawn!”


Socrates was at the Piraeus with some friends to see the festivities there. On his way back, he was compelled to go to the house of Cephalus – an old man. There were many people there discussing things.

Cephalus complained that since he was getting so old, he wasn’t able to do as much as he’d like. As bodily pleasures fade, he finds conversation and company to be the pleasures left in life. Socrates enjoys conversation, especially older men, because he sees them as experienced in life and might pass on their wisdom to the younger men. He asks if life is indeed harder as you get older.

Cephalus answers that he can’t eat and drink like he could do when he was younger. Life has lost its luster physically. But he finds that as he gets older he feels freer because he’s no longer dominated by his passions and desires. He can think more clearly. Socrates replies that people could say that he might be so happy because he is rich and wealth gives him that freedom. Cephalus agrees that people don’t believe him and that they are right to some point. Having the needs of old age while being poor can’t be easy but then again life is harder when you’re rich and pissed off all the time. Having an agreeable temperament plays a large role in that too.

Socrates asks if he inherited his money or made it himself. He made it himself. His grandfather was a rich man but his father pissed it away. He was able to build the wealth back up. Socrates asked because he sees that Cephalus is indifferent to money which is typical of people who’ve inherited it. People who make their own money are usually very boring because they’ve always got money on the brain. Those who inherit it are freer to explore the world and philosophy.

He asks Cephalus what the best part of being rich is. Cephalus responds that as he gets older, death becomes a greater reality to him. He has to start thinking about the welfare of his soul because he will have to pay/reap the consequences of his actions here on earth. Because he is so rich, he’s not tempted to steal or do bad things to alleviate the pressures of old age. Because of that, he knows he will behave justly and die with a clear conscience.

Socrates asks what he means by “justice”. Not lying and paying your debts? If a friend leaves a weapon with you and asks for it back when he’s crazy, it wouldn’t be very just to get it to him. But you are giving what it owed to another person, aren’t you?

C: You’re right.

Polemarchus, Cephalus’s son, takes over for him because he’s got some other things to do. Polemarchus quotes Simonides for justice.

P: Paying your debts.

S: What about returning your friend’s weapon? That can’t be justice.

P: It can’t. He meant you should do good for your friends and never evil.

S: Should you do evil to your enemies?

P: Yep. Whatever is due to him.

S: So if we thought about medicine – to what is medicine due? And cooking?

P: Medicine is giving drugs and food to human bodies and cookery is giving seasoning to food.

S: Because you don’t need medicine when you’re doing well, is there a time when you don’t need justice because you’re not in lack of it? The physician is needed when the body is ill and the pilot is needed at sea. But when you’re not ill or not at sea, you don’t need a doctor or a pilot. In times of war, you don’t need justice?

P: You do need it.

S: So, you need it like a farmer needs “farming” when he’s growing corn or a shoemaker needs “shoemaking” when he’s making shoes.

P: Yes.

S: So why do you need justice in peace?

P: In contracts and partnerships.

S: Does justice help you make a better builder or musician?

P: No, it helps in a money partnership.

S: Wouldn’t you want a guy who knows about horses if your money partnership involves buying horses? And for a buying a ship, you’d want a ship builder or a pilot?

P: Yes.

S: Why would you want a just man in dealing with money?

P: In keeping it safe.

S: You need to keep it safe when you’re not using it. So if you want to keep pruning hooks safe when you’re not using them, you give them to a just man. When you want to use them, you get yourself a wine-grower? When you when to keep a shield or a musical instrument safe when you’re not using them, you go to a just man? And when you want to use them, you get a soldier or a musician?

P Right.

S: So, with all things, justice is useful when the things aren’t being used? And justice is useless when they are in use, justice is useless?

P: Yep.

S: Justice is pretty useless then. I don’t buy that. So, let’s consider a boxer. The guy best at delivering a punch is also best at avoiding one, right? A man best at the prevention of disease is also best at creating it. The best guards also are best at ambushes. But the best keeper is also the best thief? So, a just man good at keeping money is the best thief around?

P: Um…

S: You’re along the same lines as Simonides and Homer who thought justice is the art of theft but only for the good of friends and the harm of enemies. What if you think your friends are good and your enemies are evil, but you’re really wrong? Your friends are the bad guys and your enemies are the good guys. Wouldn’t that be wrong to do evil to good people and good to bad people? But we know that a just man must not do harm to an innocent man, right?

P: Right.

S: For example, when you harm a horse, you deteriorate it, not help it become a better, healthier horse. And when you harm a man with respect to virtue, you make him less virtuous. And that virtue I’m talking about is justice. So, when you harm him you take away his justice.

P: Yep.

S: A musician does not perform music and make others less musical. Horsemen do not perform their craft and make other horsemen worse at theirs. So, a just man cannot perform justice and make other men less just – just as heat can’t produce cold, drought cannot produce moisture and good cannot produce harm. He makes unjust men just.

P: Correct.

S: So, to say that justice is doing harm to evil and good to good is not right or wise because doing harm to anyone is not just. It was probably a rich and powerful man who came up with that. Anyway, since we’re not really buying that definition you’ve just given, what is justice?

Thrasymachus enters into the conversation firing with both barrels. He starts accusing Socrates of being a bastard because he only asks people questions instead of supplying his own answer. Anyone can ask questions and then shit on the person who answers them. He wants to see a little magic from the man himself.

Socrates rebuffs Thrasymachus a bit saying – look, I think we all agree that justice is probably the most important thing in the world. So, why would we go round and round in circles to avoid coming to a good answer? There’s no point in dicking around in trying to get to it but there’s also no point in offering any old explanation. We’re trying to see if our answers stand up to scrutiny.

T: See, he’s still avoiding giving an answer.

S: Come on. You can’t ask me to give an answer for something and then give me a strict list of what it can’t be. What if it is one of those things? You can’t tie my hands like that and then ask me to be honest. You’ve got to give me free reign to explore possible answers. You can’t forbid me to say anything if I’m at all to supply my own answers. Since you’re so knowledgeable about everything. Let’s hear your bright idea. I’ll be happy to praise you if you give a good answer.

T: All right. Justice is just what is in the interest of the stronger. Where’s me

S: Let me get you right before I start congratulating you. So, a wrestler eats beef to make himself stronger than us? So, eating beef is good for us too? And that beef makes us better and more just?

T: Don’t start with that shit, Socrates, you know damn well that I’m speaking about terms of political power. You’ve got different types of government: tyrannies, democracies and aristocracies. The government is the ruling power of each state. The laws passed in each form of government are passed to make the rulers stronger. They’re all in the interest of the rulers. So justice is whatever is in best interest of the ruler.

S: Let’s see. I’ll agree with you that justice is an interest of some sort. You go ahead and say that it’s of the stronger. Let’s take a look at that. Ok. So, is it just for subjects to obey the rulers?

T: Yes.

S: But rulers aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, right?

T: Right.

S: So, when they write their laws, they can make mistakes, right.

T: Right.

S: So, when they write the laws to their own advantage, they are doing so in their own interests. And when they write laws to their own disadvantage, they’re doing so against their own interests. Right?

T: Yep.

S: And when the subjects obey the laws – no matter if they are right or wrong – that’s justice?

T: Yep.

S: So obedience to laws in the interest of the ruler is justice, as well as obedience to laws against the interest of the ruler is justice?

T: ?

S: Just repeating what you told me. That’s a bit contradictory. The subjects must obey the laws. The rulers are fallible. And when they make laws in or against their own interest, the people must obey. But that’s not always in the interest of the stronger, is it? So, your definition is flawed.

T: The mistaken is not the stronger when he is mistaken. A doctor is not a doctor when he makes mistakes. A mathematician is not practicing mathematics when he makes a mistake. So, a ruler is not acting as a ruler when he makes laws mistakenly – i.e. against his interest.

S: OK. In the strictest sense of the word “doctor” – according to your definition of the word – is he a healer of the sick or a business man?

T: Healer.

S: A pilot a captain of sailors, or a sailor?

T: Captain of sailors.

S: When he sails, he is in the ship and his being in the ship is secondary to him being captain of all the other sailors in the ship. So, pilot was nothing to do with sailing, but more to do with his skill and authority over sailors.

T: Yes.

S: Every art/skill has a subject, right?

T: Yep.

S: The subject is the concern of the practitioner of the skill.

T: Yep.

S: And that’s the whole point behind practicing it, right? And the point behind that is to be as good as possible at that art, right? I mean, the body is not self-sufficient. It has needs. It can be sick and needs healing. That’s what medicine’s about.

T: Correctamundo.

S: OK. But medicine isn’t perfect. You need some other skill to improve medicine when it has its faults. You’ll need to make tools to help medicine improve. So, you have tool making. And tool making has its problems and there can be something that makes tool making a better skill, etc.

T: Right.

S: So, medicine is not looking out for itself. It’s looking out for the body. Horsemanship is about horses not horsemanship itself. The rulers are concerned with the subjects, not for themselves. So, with all that you can say that any art is focused on the welfare of the weaker, not the stronger. The physician makes prescriptions for the patient, not himself. He’s a ruler of the human body and not just a money maker. The pilot is making orders to the sailors for their own interests, not just himself.

T: I’m not buying that argument. Most rulers never even think of their subject, much less enact laws for the good of the subjects. The just man always loses out to the unjust. Privately, an unjust man will always fuck over a just man in business. Publicly, an unjust man will skip out on his taxes and a just man will pay them. The just man will always come out on top. The unjust will get all the public benefits from the government and the just will get none. When they get into office – a just man will neglect his affairs and other bad shit happens to him. His friends will get pissed off because he won’t do them favors. An unjust man will neglect his office for his own affairs. He’ll do all kinds of corrupt favors for his friends. The just man is always fucked over while the unjust will be rolling in cash. People abhor injustice because they are afraid of being on the business end of it, not because they refuse to behave in an unjust manner.

S: I don’t really agree with that. You will find unjust men committing all sorts of crimes but I don’t think that injustice is necessarily superior to justice. Your view of the ruler is not really one of a ruler. It’s a man looking over a banquet just as he’s about to tuck in. The art of a shepherd is not looking at the sheep to see which one he’s going to eat. He’s taking care of the sheep, not himself. You yourself we talking about a ruler only ruling when he’s performing his job without mistake. When he errs, he’s not being a ruler. When he’s looking of ways to bilk his people then, he’s not really being a ruler.

T: Go on.

S: Each art gives us something good in particular. Medicine gives us good health. Navigation allows us to sail safely, etc. You can’t really say that medicine is the art of receiving pay just because he accepts money for his craft. And the same is true with other practices. So, they just receive money for the results of their actions. When he receives money, he’s at an advantage but the art itself isn’t really benefited. Medicine gives health, building makes houses and the art of payment pays the doers. However, the artist is only benefited in his practice by receiving payment. So, people who become rulers don’t do so without getting paid because they won’t be able to continue to practice ruling without money. He wouldn’t take on such a shitty job where he’d have to address a lot bad things and it would take so much of his time that he couldn’t attend to his other matters. They get paid in three ways: money, honor or a penalty for refusal.

T: What’s that? Refusing?

S: Well, greed and avarice are seen as shitty traits. Good men don’t want to be seen demanding money to rule. Good men also don’t care about honor. The one way you can get a good man to rule is to threaten him with a punishment if he doesn’t accept the job. The worst punishment of refusal is that someone really shitty will take the job instead of him. That fear is the real driving force behind men accepting the job. So, then a good ruler isn’t really looking out for himself but the subjects because he cares enough about them to take the job in order to avoid a really nasty ruler in his place.

Glaucon – Socrates’s buddy & Plato’s older brother – enters into the conversation. I think the part of the just is the best.

They all decide to have a more formal panel and judge the value of the points from all those talking. Thrasymachus starts first by answering Socrates’s question: Is perfect injustice more profitable than perfect injustice?

T: Yes. I’ve already told you why. Justice is not a vice but “sublime simplicity”. Injustice is not malignity but “discretion”. The unjust appear to be wise and good – especially the perfectly unjust – the ones able to subdue entire nations, not pickpockets.

S: I can’t believe that you think injustice is together with wisdom and virtue and justice with the opposite. Well, it seems like we’re just playing games with words. It sounds like you’re calling injustice honorable and strong and justice the opposite. Does the just man try to gain advantage over the just? Would he do anything other than a just action? Would he try something on with the unjust?

T: No. No. He’d think it’d be just. He’d try but wouldn’t be able to. A just man will not try to get more than another just man but would try to do so with an unjust man.

S: A just man doesn’t want more than any other just man but he does want more than an unjust man. But an unjust man wants more than both other unjust men and just men. And the unjust is good and wise and the just is neither?

T: Right.

S: In the case of a musician and a non-musician. And the musician is the wiser and the non-musician is the fool. A man is good insofar as he is wise and likewise if he is foolish. Is that right? And if so, could we apply that to other arts.

T: Right.

S: Would a musician claim to exceed being a musician in tightening and loosening strings?

T: No.

S: Would he claim to be better than a non-musician?

T: Yes.

S: About knowledge and ignorance. Would a man who has knowledge wish to say or do more than another with the same knowledge? Or would he say that he can do the same thing?

T: The same thing.

S: And the ignorant. Wouldn’t he want to have more than knowledgeable or the ignorant? So the bad and ignorant will want more than the good and knowledgeable. Then the just is like the wise and good and the unjust like the evil and ignorant.

T: Yes.

Socrates basically has shot Thrasymachus’s theory apart. Thrasymachus is now on board with Socrates’s relative points of good/bad, just/unjust. The question still remains of what justice actually is. Socrates continues

S: Didn’t you say that injustice had strength?

T: Yes.

S: A state may justly or unjustly try to enslave other states.

T: Yes. And the more perfectly unjust state is more likely to do so.

S: Do you think that any band of criminals could ever do anything if they acted purely to injure each other? They’d never get any crime done. If they cooperated, they could get shit done. Injustice causes division, hatred and fighting, while justice causes harmony, union and friendship.

T: Right.

S: So, in the case of wanton slavery and fighting, such an atmosphere of injustice would create a lot of antipathy and fighting and making any sort of teamwork impossible. Even between two people, if there’s injustice, there’s going to be some sort of fight. Even in one person – if he’s got a fair amount of injustice, he’s going to lose some of his “natural power”.

T: Let’s assume that he keeps it.

S: Well, wherever this person ends up – in a city, an army, a family – if he’s so unjust, he’ll never be able to work with anyone else because he’ll always try to start some shit with someone else. He then becomes his own worst enemy. At some point he’s unjust to himself because he’s always causing himself trouble. And if the gods are just and he’s unjust – then he’s now the enemy of the gods. That’s not good for him. That’s not a position of strength. If people were purely evil, they’d never get together in a team to be unjust toward another person. So, even when they’re complete assholes, they still have a shred of good in them.

T: Sure.

S: There is a purpose to having something like a horse. You reason you’ve got a horse is because something else wouldn’t be as good as a horse for that purpose. You could use something else but it wouldn’t be as good. You could use a sword to trim vines but it’s nowhere near as good as a pruning hook.

T: Word.

S: That’s its true purpose. So the purpose of something is the use of it that could not be done so well as anything else. Everything has its purpose and something that it is good at. But if your eyes are missing something to make them excellent, then can they fulfill their purpose? Do things, which fulfill their purpose, do so by their own excellence? And do they fail by their own faults?

T: Yep.

S: Eye and ears have their purpose and the thing that they excel at. Seeing and hearing. And when they can’t see and hear very well, then they are falling short of their purpose and their excellence. And there’s nothing that can fulfill those purposes.

T: Yep.

S: Just like the soul. The soul has a purpose that nothing else has and it has something it’s good at that nothing else can do. This is the thing of the soul and of nothing else. And can it fulfill its purpose when it doesn’t have its excellence.

T: No way, Jose.

S: So a ruler with an evil soul will be a bad ruler and a ruler with a good soul will be a good ruler. So justice is the excellence of the soul and injustice is the defect of the soul. The just man with the just soul will live well and the unjust man with shit for a soul will live badly. And man who lives well is happy and a man who lives badly is unhappy. And if happiness is profitable and unhappiness is unprofitable, then injustice can never be better than justice.

T: Yep.

S: I might have proven you wrong, but we still don’t know what justice is…

Author: knowit68

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